Dear Newlywed, You're Probably Worried About the Wrong Thing

Dear Newlywed,

Congratulations! You're embarking on an exciting new chapter of your life. You've got hopes and dreams and plans. Plans, plans, plans. You've got the next few years mapped right out. You're going to finish school and you're going to pay off school and you're going to achieve your professional goals and you're going to make the world a better place.

THEN you're going to have just the right number of kids.

That's exactly where I was, thirteen years ago. My husband was starting graduate school. I was going to work until he was done with that, then we were going to have some kids. Probably four.

It didn't work out quite like that. We had kids right away, and lots of 'em.

You look at me and my kids. All my kids. All my so, so many kids. And maybe you think whew, plenty of time for that later. Or maybe you think, jeesh, I could never do that. Or maybe you cry a single tear, because "the environment," and "me time."

But, suffice to say, whatever your reasons, you don't want kids right yet. And anyway, you know that if you don't take steps to stop them from coming, you will have twelve children. Maybe fourteen. Maybe sixty-nine. Everyone knows that.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage. It's right there in the song. So, you'll have to do SOMETHING or you'll have a perfectly ridiculous number of children. Everyone knows that.

So, you learn NFP. And you do NFP. Or, maybe you decide that the having and not having of children is too important to trust to the old-fashioned teachings of the Catholic Church. So you resort to other measures to make sure you don't have all those children.

But here's the thing. It's actually pretty unlikely that you were ever going to have as many kids as I do.

What I observe is that it's MUCH more likely that you won't have as many children as you'd like to have.

I get emails every week from women who always thought they'd have children, or more children. I get requests for prayers, and for support, and for sympathy. I get stopped in stores by women who tell me they wish they could have had a big family, but they weren't able to.

There is a general perception that the only thing keeping every woman of childbearing age from having fourteen children, is some method of family planning. But the facts really don't support that perception.

The total fertility rate in the United States after World War II peaked at about 3.8 children per woman in the late 1950s. In 1999 it was at 2 children, almost exactly the same total fertility rate as the period of 1930-1939. Certainly, there were forms of artificial birth control available then. The Lambeth Conference in the Anglican Church, which took place in 1930, ushered in Protestant acceptance of birth control. But it took a long time for that teaching, which they intended to be narrow, to be accepted and implemented by everyone. So it's likely that, for the majority of American women at that time, two children was just all they were able to have.

I have seven children, yes. I expect I'll have another couple before this part of my life is done. You never know, of course, but it seems likely. But I, and every other crazy passenger van mom you see, we are the exception. Not the rule.

In this generation of my immediate family, there are four happily married couples. None are taking steps to prevent pregnancies. My husband and I are just taking them as they come, not seeking to achieve or avoid pregnancy. But the other three couples, who have been married for between four and nine years, are actively pursuing the having of children.

And those other loving families have two children, and two children, and zero children.

Wanting more children -- or any children at all -- has been something I've watched my sisters struggle with for many years.

I used to look at a family with two children and think, "Well, they got their two, I guess they're done." Or I looked at a couple with no children and thought, "She must just really be focused on her career." And if the place I saw those families was in Mass, I most likely made some unfair assumptions about what they were up to. May God forgive me, I know better than to do that now.

I know that many of those families would gratefully have accepted more children. That many of them wished dearly to do so. That many of them had endured miscarriages, and treatments, and surgeries.

I have watched my sister-in-law gracefully field question after question about why they haven't started a family yet, knowing that's the thing she'd most like to do.

I'm not interested in fear mongering. I'm not trying to scare you. I'm not trying to tell you, or any other particular woman, that you won't have children, or that you won't have the number of children you wish to have.

But I do want you to know that, in general, our society is worried about exactly the wrong thing. We are worried about getting pregnant. We are told we should fear having children too soon. We are told we should fear having too many children. We are told it's the thing that will ruin our lives. That's what everyone says.

It's a lie.

The true heartbreak lies in infertility, in subfertility. But "they" won't tell you that.

When I was a newlywed, it never would have occurred to me that I wouldn't have just as many kids as I could possibly want. And I have. But I know enough now to not take it for granted. I've brought hundreds of prayer requests from readers along with us on our pilgrimages, and almost HALF of them have been prayers for a child, or another child.

It makes me grateful, now, for those times early in my marriage, when everything was still new and nothing was settled, when I sat there in tears over a pregnancy. Or another pregnancy. Because, despite all that conventional wisdom about how we were too young and too poor and too newly married and too unaccomplished to start a family, it all turned out all right. Better than all right. It all turned out so beautifully. Those early babies made my marriage stronger and made me a better person.

I now know dozens of women who have struggled with infertility and subfertility and secondary infertility and miscarriages. Most of them felt blindsided by the fact that getting pregnant and having many children wasn't automatic. Marriage can be hard, parenthood can be trying. I've certainly known many women who would say that. But I've never known a woman who wished she had fewer children.

You're just married. Maybe this really isn't a good time for you to have a baby. There ARE good reasons to wait. Reasons that even an old-fashioned church approves. NFP is a very useful thing to know. Understanding how your body works is helpful no matter which part of the journey you're on.

But just know, from me, that if you turn up pregnant despite your best efforts, it's likely to be the best thing that ever happens to you. Every single time. And if you don't turn up pregnant, despite your best efforts, it's likely to be the biggest cross of your life.

"They" won't tell you that. But you should know. So you won't be worried about the wrong things.

So much of this isn't in our own hands anyway, of course. Maybe, hopefully, you can learn not to worry about anything at all.